For a house to stand and last, a certain degree of thoughtfulness and craftsmanship are required. For that same house to be an efficient, comfortable, nurturing space that holds its heat and lets the right amount of fresh air in at the right times through the changing of seasons and over decades — that requires a much greater degree of thoughtfulness and craftsmanship. In either case, a solid foundation is essential.
Things like quality education from birth to career, safe and affordable housing, access to health care, healthy food and employment opportunities secure positive health outcomes for everyone. Vocational training, therapy, youth development, home visits, parent education and community drug treatment programs have all been shown to prevent crime. These are just some of the human services that create a strong foundation of health and well-being in our communities. This is why the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC) advocates for public funding for human services.
This year, Seattle’s city budget cycle was particularly challenging. Officials discovered a large deficit between projected and actual revenue. Thankfully, the Mayor’s Office and the City Council worked together, diligently, to meet many of the SHSC’s recommendations for funding human services in our city for the next two years.
We began working for this in the spring when we created our budget recommendation package based on the needs of our communities, as identified by the hundreds of human service providers that make up the nine coalitions that make up the SHSC. We met with city officials and councilmembers throughout the budget process to ensure funding for human services would be a priority in the final budget. We co-hosted a rally with the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence and labor unions including OPEIU 8, SEIU 1199 NW and MLK Labor on the steps of City Hall to ensure the City Council understood the depth of the need that Seattle’s citizens are still experiencing. We were ultimately pleased and impressed with the cooperation between the Mayor’s Office and the council.
There is much to celebrate.
And there is still so much more to do. We know that for decades, human services providers have been underpaid, expected to work for less than a living wage for the “privilege” of doing “meaningful” work. We also know that the people who have been historically, systemically oppressed, like women, BIPOC folx and queer folx, are the people working in these jobs. Our compassion for the experiences of our communities motivates us to work to make things better for one another, regardless of pay. This means the cycle of poverty and oppression is perpetuated, not only by inadequate funding for the level of services we need, but by poverty wages for those doing the work.
Delivery of services and retention of providers requires fair wages to even begin to meet communities’ needs, let alone address the poverty cycle perpetuated by inequitable wages. Our sector is currently experiencing a crisis of vacancies and turnover due to inadequate compensation and unstable funding. Human service providers such as resource navigators, health care technicians, social workers, child care providers, job training specialists, therapists and peer counselors sometimes qualify for the same services they are helping their clients navigate.
As inflation increases, as wages continue to fall further and further behind other sectors, after years of building relationships with their communities and learning the ins and outs of the issues they face, after years of training and experience making them the best at their jobs, our sector’s most important resource, skilled humans, can’t afford to stay in their positions. This means we are losing all the institutional and community knowledge these seasoned professionals take with them when they leave to find better paying work. The costs of turnover in the form of time lost recruiting, interviewing and training new employees along with the loss of experience and skills are much higher than the cost of simply paying an adequate wage in the first place.
It is also essential to remember these are services that benefit and support everyone in our communities, not just people experiencing poverty. When we talk about building a warm, comfortable house with a solid foundation and a good roof, that house is our society, our communities, our neighborhoods. Human services are the wiring, the plumbing, the siding, the HVAC. We all need human services infrastructure for our communities to thrive.
It is essential to put out fires when they are alight, but it is also essential to maintain your wiring to prevent fires. Similarly, we need to maintain the roof, rather than constantly repairing the damage done by rain. We need human services infrastructure to build a solid foundation for a safe and thriving One Seattle, and it depends on retaining skilled employees who are adequately paid.
We have many supportive policy makers who believe, as we do, that human services are essential to our communities’ well-being. We also have a lot of policies and budgets still based on a belief that it is easier to punish bad behavior than it is to support health and well-being. We need a paradigm shift. We need holistic investments in people and the infrastructure that supports all people thriving.
It is up to us to create an environment in which politicians work to create policies supporting this necessary paradigm shift. Our coalition will continue to make the recommendations that support a healthy human services sector. We will continue to advocate for the policies supporting holistic and equitable care of our communities. We hope you will continue to create political will and pressure policy makers to go further toward creating the warm, stable house in which we can all thrive.
Jen Muzia is the executive director of the Ballard Food Bank and co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition. Steve Daschle is the executive director of Southwest Youth and Family Services and co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition. Tree Willard is the executive director of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.
Read more of the Dec. 14-20, 2022 issue.